Empiricism and Process Theology: God Is What God Does

by David Miller

Dr. David Miller teaches at the Stirling Media Research Center, Stirling University, Scotland.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 24, 1976, pp. 284-287. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We are called to re-examine data from the biblical and historic traditions as well as to interpret new data. The author sees reality as a process of becoming .and perishing, with new “becomings” building on that which has perished.

In 1932 The Christian Century published for 25 weeks a series of articles on empirical theology, with disclaimers by a cheerful atheist, Max Otto. The discussions on "Is There a God?" were by Douglas Clyde Macintosh and Henry Nelson Wieman. Otto made positive statements about the nonexistence of God, and the two theists criticized each other. Both Macintosh and Wieman were empiricists; they believed that by the method of observation, experiment and reason one could establish the existence of God. Macintosh accused Wieman of being like "a tightrope walker at a circus. At one time it almost seemed as if he were going to come down on the side of theism." What irked Macintosh was that Wieman talked about God as "the growth of meaning and value in the world" and saw no evidence pointing to God as a person; Wieman thought that Macintosh, though starting with empirical evidence, proceeded to interpret God in terms of human wishes rather than in terms of the facts. Furthermore, Macintosh was guilty, said Wieman, of relying on the religious consciousness, with results that were subjective.

Theological Winds of Change

In 1939, the Century ran a series of 35 articles on "How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade." Sixteen of the writers mentioned Karl Barth, but only three responded favorably to his thought. The emphasis was still on some brand of liberalism. Halford Luccock titled his article "With No Apologies to Barth!" At this time, Charles Hartshorne was making an impact with his process thinking and especially with his logical analysis of the ways in which God is both absolutely and relatively perfect, so that God is unsurpassable except by self: this analysis opened the door to thinking about God as one who suffers and therefore changes in response to the world. The empirical theologians leaned toward such process thinking, but at this point they had not worked out the implications.

With the coming of World War II there was a Barthian blackout of this kind of thinking. The emphasis was on revelation and the wholly other God. Natural theology was at least suspect and in some cases was ruled out altogether. Macintosh characterized Barthian theology as "reactionary irrationalism," but as a younger generation took over theological discourse, Barthian ways of thinking predominated. Slowly the whole of theology was permeated by what was called neo-orthodoxy. After Shelton Smith wrote Faith and Nature (1940), even the liberal religious educators began to be influenced.

During all this time, most of the churches held to a standard biblical othodoxy that was only slightly swayed by the winds of either neo-orthodoxy or liberalism. Yet there were disturbing changes taking place among many believers. The emphases of the culture as a whole were influenced by secularism, scientific discoveries and technology. There were criticisms of theology from within as theologians began to take account of these secular forces. John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) was a reaction to standard orthodoxy rather than to neo-orthodoxy or liberalism, and the response of lay people in both England and the United States revealed that there were many unanswered questions.

We were ready, then, for the "death of God" movement. Paul van Buren’s Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) pointed directly to Barth’s concept of God. The logical positivists with their demand for verification addressed themselves mostly to traditional supernaturalism. Many concepts of God were dead, but that did not mean that God was dead. Henry Nelson Wieman looked at the carnage and concluded that no one was talking about his concept of God, for an empirical approach required the kind of verification that the logical positivists were demanding.

Certain developments in theology pointed to a recovery of belief in God. Following Bultmann and Heidegger, Schubert Ogden moved toward an existentialist approach in Christ Without Myth (1961). However, Ogden was also steeped in the thought of Wieman, Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead; in The Reality of God (1966) he moved toward an empirically based process theology, albeit one with the pointedness of existentialism. About the same time, John B. Cobb, Jr., building on Hartshorne and Whitehead, developed A Christian Natural Theology (1965). When in 1969 Bernard E. Meland edited The Future of Empirical Theology, it seemed that there had been both a recovery of empiricism and an enrichment of it. The specifically Christian developments became evident in The Spirit and Forms of Love (1968), by Daniel Day Williams, which Cobb called "the first systematic process theology."

Conversions to New Paradigms

If we broaden our historical perspective, we will see that there have been constantly changing viewpoints throughout the history of Christianity. The biblical faith came into contact with Greek thought, and this cross-fertilization led to a new perspective on the world. When Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotle for his philosophical framework, another world view replaced the earlier one. Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard provided new ways of looking at things. Today we have modern physics and process philosophy. A paradigm determines both the data we select and the way we interpret them. In each case, data previously ignored have forced themselves upon human consciousness, effecting a conversion to a new paradigm. Ian Barbour describes this process in his Myths, Models, and Paradigms (1974). It has occurred in science as well as in theology, and it is through such a process that human knowledge is advanced.

The common paradigm in secular knowledge today is determined by developments in science, technology, communications, political procedures and, ultimately, a world view that comes not only from recent discoveries but also from new ways of looking at old data. Wittgenstein once said that "the problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known" (Philosophical Investigations, p. 47 [third edition, 1968]). So we are called to re-examine data from the biblical and historic traditions as well as to interpret new data.

Becoming and Perishing

Given a process paradigm, we see reality as a process of becoming .and perishing, with new "becomings" building on that which has perished. The model is that of the human body, with its interrelationships whereby plural activities constitute a unity; the constant process of becoming and perishing is the key to understanding it. The process paradigm evokes a picture of the world that is consistent with the findings of modern science and yet is specifically religious in its orientation.

Within this framework, the starting point of theology is the study of the relationship between human beings and a superhuman reality we call God. But even to assume such a reality as God leads to a careful examination of our experiences to determine how any thing or entity can be known to exist. We reflect on these experiences and make sure that our concepts are coherent with other concepts understood within this paradigm, and then build a world view that includes our religious beliefs as part. of a coherent system.

This approach makes use of radical empiricism, pragmatism, and a pluralistic world view. Radical empiricism, as derived from William James, is based on an analysis of our experience of objects and the relationships between objects of fact and value, with a testing process to check conclusions. The pragmatic aspects, which involve us in checking whether our ideas work, also including value judgments; for a tree is known by its fruits, and faith without works is dead. Unless we impose a premature unity on our interpretation, there are always some loose ends in this kind of thinking. All experience is seen as being within the process of becoming and perishing, with God as an active entity within the process working toward value, and as a transcendent factor who is -everlasting. (These views are spelled out in detail in the writings of the process theologians and summarized in my book The American Spirit in Theology [1974]).

Such a theology becomes biblical when the methods are used in dealing with the biblical record. The Bible provides a historical statement of religious development, a dynamic and vital interpretation of the search for God, and primary data for any normative approach to Christianity. It is the basic source for Christian beliefs. All the diversities of Christian theology claim the Bible as their source, and this claim places upon us responsibility to deal intelligently with all that we can know about the Bible.

Seen in this way, the Bible is not centered on humanity. Although it is a record of the human search for God, the emphasis is on God. It provides historical data open to human interpretation, but the theme is the acts of God. The message from God is received by the men and women of the Bible -- sometimes in muted tones, sometimes in distorted forms, and sometimes with amazing clarity. It speaks to a different view of the nature of the world, and therefore we need to see how to fit it into our paradigm.

God as Creative Order

When empiricism is used to seek out and interpret the data about God, we begin with the statement that God is what God does. Revelation has to do with events and not propositions. Therefore, we identify God with the creative order of the world, a process which transforms human beings, brings values from a potential to an actual state, and works to overcome evil with good. God is that process by which we are made new, strengthened, directed, comforted, forgiven, saved, and by which we are lured into feelings of wonder, awe and reverence. This may not be all that we can know about God, but as Daniel Day Williams suggested in reference to Wieman, this view of God as creative order

actually stated what has become the practice of people in wide areas of our culture, including much of the practice of religious institutions. When we ask what [people] actually put their trust in as revealed by their actions, we see that we may require something like "creative interchange" to describe the operative process to which we give our attention and even our devotion [Charles Hartshorne and Henry Nelson Wieman, edited by William S. Minor (Foundation for Creative Philosophy, 1969) p. 56].

Beyond the empirical findings as part of this approach to religious knowledge, there are what William James called "overbeliefs." Here we move into the area of analogies, models and metaphors. We use words normally restricted to human relations to describe our experience of God. We think of God as holy; we experience God as just and righteous; we construe God as persuasive love; we see God as good. These are ways of looking upon God as having certain characteristics; as long as we don’t take them literally and make God in our own image, it is a helpful way to think.

Process theologians think of reality as becoming and perishing, and this process could degenerate into chaos if there were no limits. God is thought of as dipolar. As abstract, God is the principle of limitation, the source of potentialities waiting to be born, the primordial reality which structures what would otherwise be chaos. The aims or purposes of God reside in the abstract nature.

God is also the concrete process which works in and through nature and humanity. Thus, when we think of God’s consequent nature, we are pointing to that immanent process which is the persuasive love of God at work. It is God’s grace, God’s free gift of self, God’s concrete presence which we experience. God’s abstract nature is everlasting and does not change, while God’s concrete nature participates in the life of the universe and is affected by it. God suffers, enjoys, and changes. So God affects history and is affected by the joys and sufferings of humankind. Insofar as we share in the subjective aims of God, we are on the right track.

God is not the all, as in pantheism, and God is not separate from the world, as in deism. God is both cause and effect, is independent as primordial and involved as consequent, is good and yet suffers from evil. In God "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). This concept is sometimes labeled panentheism. This dipolar God is one God, for the abstract nature is included within the consequent nature.

The emphasis on God’s love suggests an approach to the problem of evil. Whitehead was adamant that the "brief Galilean vision" pointed not to a monarchial deity, but to God as working through persuasive love and therefore not in complete control. There was no doctrine of predestination, and evil was beyond God’s purpose as something to be overcome with good. Evil is a brute motive force, and "the fact of the instability of evil is the moral order of the world" (Religion in the Making [1926], p. 95). If chance, novelty and freedom are seen as existing independently of God’s aims, they may either be aligned with God’s aims or opposed to them. Thus evil is opposed to God as external, and God has an environment. We can account for the world we live in and still have faith in God.

An Open Future

The implications of this concept of God for Christianity are significant. It is a theology that is both incarnational and sacramental. God comes into human life at all times, for God is immanent and is capable of ingression. There is a basis here for understanding how God was present in and worked through Jesus as the Christ and how the spirit of God or Christ may be present in the sacraments of the church. God draws us into community, and this act becomes a basis for understanding the church (see Bernard Lee, The Becoming of the Church [1974])

Because this kind of thinking sees the individual in relation to society, keeping the independence of the actual entity and yet seeing reality as societal and organic, religious beliefs lead to faith, worship and action. Religion may begin in solitariness, but it expresses ‘itself in community. It may begin with an experience which needs to be interpreted within the framework of a process paradigm, but its fruits are in the achieving of personal and social values. And because God is a "companion -- the fellow-sufferer who understands," the concern for the oppressed is central. Thus, social action fits into this overall view of Christianity.

The future is open. There are no guarantees that God will take over. If "God’s power is the worship he inspires," we find that great responsibility is thrown on human beings. If chance and novelty are operating principles and if human freedom is a crucial factor, the future is not known even to God. There is a creative advance into novelty," and in this advance God may surprise the world and the world may surprise God. Thus, there is hope of liberation for the oppressed, of strength to achieve values, of comfort in the face of unsurmountable obstacles, and of wisdom to distinguish which is which. "Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be" (I John 3:2, RSV).

Shared Experience

One reason for the great variety of beliefs is that at the center of all religious experience is mystery. This mystery remains such, to be pointed at or shown but not to be explained. The limitation of language is that words can only point or show. Words can become an invitation to share an experience or even to share a paradigm, and in some cases they may be very persuasive, but meaning is found in those words only after there is recognition -- of a shared, experience. The heart of religion is still the idea of the holy or numinous, to which we respond with awe, even dread, as well as reverence.

Thus, one of the most important empirical anchors is the shared experience of worship, but this sharing depends to some extent on common perceptions, feelings and beliefs. We still have to participate in the use of words if our beliefs are to be meaningful. Often we see the meaning for ourselves and others when these beliefs lead to commitment and action, for faith without works is dead.

We start with a paradigm that accounts for the data of our experiences in all areas of human endeavor. If the paradigm chosen is based on an empirical and process methodology and a philosophy of organism, the resulting Christian beliefs will be something like what we have briefly described. At least they point to the reality of the world as many people perceive the world today. This way of viewing things has a respectable history supported by some outstanding thinkers who are devoted Christians. Perhaps you will want to take a closer look.